KABUL, Afghanistan — When he walked in to the peace jirga tent, President Karzai took up his place in the front row – in a very comfortable looking arm chair. To his left and right, Afghanistan's elder statesmen. Most had long white beards; a good handful were former warlords.
Karzai had come to hear what the 1,600 delegates he'd invited were recommending he do to make peace with the Taliban. He'd had a lukewarm reception when he inaugurated the event three days earlier.
It was, however, not as frosty as the reception the Taliban gave him. A serenade of rockets and gunfire greeted his opening speech. One rocket landed just 200 meters away.
But if there is to be a place where the United States and the international community can put some hopes of getting their troops out of Afghanistan any time soon, this had to be it.
Why? Because one thing all sides in Afghanistan (NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Karzai and the Taliban) agree on is that the war here cannot be won by fighting alone.
To that end, focusing on how to get the Taliban into talks has to be seen as a step in the right direction. Just how much of a step is still not clear.
At his much delayed peace jirga, Karzai had already faced criticism that it was unrepresentative. No sooner had the deputy chairman read out the conclusions, there were calls that the three days of debate were being unfairly presented.
Such is going to be the path to peace in the country.
But what is the government presenting as the thoughts from the 1,600 tribal and civil leaders and former warlords Karzai invited to attend? In short, nothing that will greatly upset or surprise the international community and to that end may make it a very slow path to peace.
There is no mention of a key Taliban demand that NATO troops leave Afghanistan, something Karzai told the delegates at the outset was not an option.
More clarification and more issues raised by delegates may yet be made public. For now some of the top 16 recommendations are:
– Taliban to be removed from international blacklists.
– Taliban to be released from jails, both Afghan and international.
– Taliban to distance themselves from al Qaeda.
– End NATO house searches and bombing.
– Taliban to end their attacks.
– Government to establish a framework for negotiations with the Taliban.
– A peace council to be formed drawing in provincial leaders.
– For all sides to remove conditions that could harm the peace process.
As the jirga is non-binding, the government can cherry pick what it wants. A fair bet, however, is that the recommendations announced are those Karzai wants to move forward with.
If calls from delegates grow, saying that some of the more radical suggestions like moving international forces to the borders, or putting them under Afghan government control have not been heeded, then the jirga may be a step back - harming Karzai’s credibility.
After the debacle of last year’s deeply flawed presidential elections, the Afghan leader wanted the jirga to bolster his political standing. So balancing the demands of the delegates and the expectations of the international community is critical for him.
And that’s everyone’s dilemma, not just Karzai’s; it's the international community’s, too. Without credibility, Karzai can hardly lead a peace initiative, or at the very least expect the Taliban to get real about ending the fight.
So without listening to his delegates - and he invited a largely loyal and moderate cross section of the country - he can’t expect to build that credibility. But, if he goes along with hard line requests he’ll struggle for international support. And if he doesn’t go along with those far-reaching requests, he’s unlikely to convince the Taliban that now is the time to make peace.
Like it or not, Karzai’s fate is deeply tied to the international communities right now. Many diplomats in this city have had to swallow their misgivings about him and, while privately, they are very guarded in their expectations, at the jirga they are publicly supporting it.
Quite simply, it is the best option in play for getting the vast majority of their troops back home and soon.